The Civil War is often reduced to either/or terms: North or South, Union or Confederate, abolitionists or slave owners. But the war and issues at hand served to tear many families apart. While not exactly a Southern sympathizer, Mary Todd Lincoln had family members fighting under the stars and bars. Despite Henry Clay’s best attempts, the boundaries of north and south were not always clear. Few places displayed this tension like our neighbor to the west, Missouri. The intrastate struggle between Unionists and secessionists culminated in a great early war tale: The Camp Jackson Affair.
Under the Missouri Compromise, Missouri was admitted to the Union in 1821 as a slave state. By the midpoint of the century, however, there were relatively few slave owners populating Show-Me country compared to their Southern compatriots. As the country spiraled toward war, Missouri elected a new governor in 1860.
Claiborne Jackson successfully ran for governor that fall as Douglas Democrat, that being one that was anti-secession. His campaign rhetoric was a lie, as he secretly desired that Missouri join the Confederacy and began pushing and planning upon taking the oath of office.
After fighting broke out at Fort Sumter, South Carolina in April 1861, Jackson refused President Abraham Lincoln’s request for troops, citing his belief that the actions of the Union were illegal. Instead of supporting the Union, Jackson was in communication with Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Confederacy had begun raiding Union arsenals, stockpiling weapons. The governor had his eyes on the St. Louis Arsenal, one of the largest in the country. What he needed was artillery to complete such a job, which Davis supplied via the Mississippi River after a raid in Baton Rouge.
In May 1861, a truce with the federal government was formulated to allow Missouri to remain neutral while holding the state for the Union. This simply was a way to keep the Union at bay for a moment, as Jackson had communicated to Davis that if the Confederacy were to invade, Missouri forces would not resist.
Jackson proceeded to assemble a training ground for the Missouri militia near St. Louis, legal under the state constitution. It came to be known as Camp Jackson and was led by General Daniel Frost. The militia, comprised primarily of secessionists, would use this base to then raid the arsenal.
Union officials, alarmed and suspicious of the actions, sent Captain Nathaniel Lyon, a staunch Union supporter from Connecticut, to defend the arsenal. He was in command of a volunteer militia primarily comprised of anti-slavery German immigrants living in St. Louis.
Franklin Dick, St. Louis attorney and adjutant general to Lyon during this time, kept a journal which has been published by Gari Carter. In his writings, Dick describes their reconnaissance mission to the camp. Disguised as an elderly woman with dress and veil, Lyon was taken by Camp Jackson in a carriage to gather information about the operations of the camp. I’m not a military expert, but I can’t imagine that’s how modern generals carry out such missions.
Affirmed in their belief that the camp simply served to train militia for a raid, Lyon and his men decided to attack.
On May 10, 1861, several thousand Unionist volunteers and Federal regulars surrounded Camp Jackson, capturing over 600 militia members. He then ordered that the prisoners be marched to the St. Louis Arsenal.
As they marched, angry secessionists gathered, targeting the German immigrants. A riot of unknown origin broke out in the city. Days of bloody fighting ensued before martial law was implemented and more United States troops arrived as reinforcement.
The incident resulted in two effects of opposite nature: the control of the state by Union forces and the increase in secessionist sympathy.
Lyon would continue to antagonize Governor Jackson, who eventually was forced to flee the state capital of Jefferson City in June 1861 by Lyon and his men. By the end of July, the Missouri state legislature voted to remain a part of the Union and vacated the governor’s office.
In November, Jackson and a secessionist group approved an ordinance to become a Confederate state, but given his lack of official power, the ordinance was meaningless.
He would eventually flee to Arkansas and die from stomach cancer while trying to mount an insurrection to take back Missouri in late 1862.
Lyon died while battling secessionist forces in Missouri in August 1861 at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.
Missouri, like so much of the South, has struggled with its history. St. Louis University, which sits on the site of Camp Jackson, has named its main campus in honor of General Daniel Frost, the leader of Jackson’s militia, who later fought for the Confederacy. In contrast, Lyon Park sits near the arsenal (which is no longer used as one), in honor of Captain Nathaniel Lyon.
The symbolism of these two nods to the past perfectly encapsulates Missouri’s, as well as our nation’s, conflicted history.